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November 25 2015

What's Up with the Administration's Homeless Numbers?

Patrice J. Lee

The Obama Administration has released new data on homelessness that leave us with conflicting impressions. While on one hand the administration is touting a decline in homelessness, some states are saying that they are in states of emergency. What gives?

The report to Congress on homelessness is here. But AEI's Kevin C. Corinth isn't persuaded of the administration's numbers. Showing a graph that breaks down homeless into those in shelters and those who are on the street, Corinth observes:

The sheltered count hasn’t budged since 2007, but the unsheltered count has plummeted.  Why is that noteworthy?  Street counts are conducted by volunteers on a single night in January.  Counting methodologies can change from year to year, and that can cause artificial changes in counts.  The most egregious example is Detroit, which counted over 13,000 people on the streets in 2007, and then less than 300 people in 2009.  For more reasons to be skeptical, check out my article from earlier this year.

The bottom line? No one really knows whether homelessness is falling.  But there is a good chance it has fallen by much less than the numbers suggest.

Just as skepticism is required when politicians talk about ending homelessness, we must also be careful when they talk about record-breaking homelessness. (Exaggerating how much homelessness there is makes it easier to reduce it later on).

We've seen the issue of homelessness become a hot button issues in some places recently. While an emergency hasn't been declared for New York, homelessness is front and center in the public debate there. Corinth thinks that these claims of homelessness are justified.

Corinth also addresses "permanent supportive housing," a program begun in the Bush years and continued by the Obama administration:

Permanent supportive housing has increased by 69% since 2007.  How can housing homeless people ever be a bad thing?  Resources are scarce.  Transitional housing, which allows stays for 6 months to 2 years at a time and provides supportive services as well, has been cut by 24% since 2007.  If people are staying in permanent housing for longer than necessary, that means fewer resources are available for needy people in the future.

One must also wonder if the fact that people are still technically defined as homeless when living in transitional housing has something to do with this trend.  When we take goals of “ending homelessness” too literally, that means we focus less on what’s actually most helpful for the people who experience homelessness.

An important facet of the homeless program, Corinth writes, is to provide shelter for people who have no place to go. Corinth writes:

Despite rough economic times, the number of people in shelters has remained steady or even fallen in most of the country since 2007.  It was only in places which guarantee residents a right to shelter when they have no place else to go that the number of people in shelters increased.  And their numbers increased a lot.

That leaves us with two possibilities.  Either lots of people who truly need shelter are being turned away in most of the country, or places with a right to shelter are accepting far too many people.

It’s clear that people denied shelter are not being found on the streets by volunteer counters in the middle of January.  But whether they have an adequate place to go is a different question.

The Obama administration has set as a goal to end homelessness among veterans by the time homelessness figures for next year come out. How is this going?

Since 2009, there has been a 35% decrease in veteran homelessness.  Given that counts of veterans in shelters have fallen along with street counts, there is reason to believe that much of this reduction is real.  However, progress appears to be slowing, with just a 4% decrease since 2014.  It is safe to say there will be more than zero homeless veterans next year.

Of course, inadequate information doesn't prevent many from calling for massive, new governent spending to address a problem the size of which we don't know:

Rather than nibbling around the edges of a massive public health catastrophe, we now need a Marshall Plan to End Homelessness. We need all hands on deck--government, the faith community, the corporate sector, non-profit housing and service organizations, philanthropy, and, perhaps most importantly, people who have themselves been homeless. We know much of what works to end homelessness. What we have now is a scaling problem. We need a massive infusion of funding at all levels to implement the full range of housing and supports necessary to end homelessness for all.

The DeBlasio Administration in New York City recently announced such an effort, dedicating $2.6 billion to provide 15,000 units of housing and wrap-around services. 15,000 units are not sufficient to end homelessness in New York, but they will certainly make a dent. We will closely follow the New York initiative to learn from their experience, and we challenge other Mayors, City Councilors, State Legislators, Senators and Representatives, and Presidents to dedicate similar large-scale resources. We must come together and commit ourselves to do better than a 2% annual reduction in homelessness.

AEI’s Corinth questions this strategy to tackling poverty though:

One of the key strategies of the Obama administration (carried over from the George W. Bush administration) has been to expand what’s known as permanent supportive housing – permanent housing with optional wraparound services to help those with substance abuse problems and/or mental illness.

In a recent paper, I found no long-run association between permanent supportive housing and homeless counts. Then again, homeless count data are difficult to trust. At the end of the day, we just don’t know how housing affects homeless population sizes.

It looks like we just don't have the data necessary to propose ways of handling this politically-charged subject.




Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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